Para rowers make history in Pune

After years of wait, RFI finally conducts a race for physically challenged at Senior National Championship

Para rowers make history in Pune
The 5 Para Rowers who made history! (L to R) Sep. Vajith V (Kerala), Sep. Rajesh Pawar (Army), Hav. K Narayan (Services), Sep. Kuldeep Singh (Haryana), Devidas Patil (Maharashtra)

Pune: It’s a paradox that Indian para rowers have more international medals than instances of participating in races at their own National Championships. Flummoxed? One sure would be.

On introspection, the medal-winning feat is certainly commendable, but then eyebrows raise to this reverse order prevalence at Rowing Federation of India (RFI) where an event at National was none so far.

Ideally, any national association would have a National Championship in place to serve the purpose of shortlisting the Indian team to represent internationally.

However, while one tries to fathom the reasons behind this unusual occurrence Wednesday, 5th January 2021 turned out to be a red-letter day for RFI, for it was at the 39th Senior and 23rd Open Sprints National Rowing Championships when for the first time Para Rowers lined up for a race.
The men in action were just five - Hav. K Narayan (Engineers, representing Services Sports Control Board), Sep. Kuldeep Singh (2 JAT Regiment, representing Haryana), Sep. Vajith V (8 Madras Regiment, from Kerala), Sep. Rajesh Pawar (5 Maratha Light Infantry, from Army Sports Control Board) and a lone civilian Devidss Patil (Maharashtra), but what significantly unfolded was that Para-Rowing received its independent identity at India’s blue-ribband Championship.
To understand the until-now-prevailing-reverse-order one needs to go back to 2017-18, when Para-Rowing was channelled into systematic existence by an Army initiative via a proposal that RFI went ahead with. As a result, the Army Rowing Node (ARN) situated at the College of Military Engineering, Pune was geared for this challenging project.
While the Army had the established and dedicated Para Node at BEG, where Para soldiers trained in various sports, played an obvious major role and  the ARN as a venue, what transpired was a new category born in rowing.
Chair Para-Rowing Commission RFI, Col. Gaurav Dutta, explains, “when we introduced Para-Rowing, the only talent, based on requisite parameters for a rower, was available in the Army. We did manage to identify two boys who fit the bill.”
Subsequently, Sapper Narayan and Sepoy Kuldeep were inducted.
“We made a start which was important,” added Col. Dutta.
But then came the dearth and paucity of talent and the hunt was on to grow the numbers.
Meanwhile, daily practice pushed Narayan and Kuldeep to a point where competition was necessary.
Colonel Sandeep Chahal, Commanding Officer ARN explains, “It was only after two years of training and the rowers attaining certain levels, they moved on to competitive levels... or should we say ready for competition.”
It was in March 2019 when both Narayan-Kuldeep created Indian rowing history bagging bronze in the PR 3 Men’s Coxless Pair event at the World Cup held in Poznan, Poland.
Col. Dutta, who has seen it all, adds, “I must admit that the feat was full thanks to RFI and Sports Authority of India to send rowers and believe in potential.”
Expanding the rower base, now, became a priority with the fact that other sports had prioritised adding women to expand competition. Mixed events were fast growing and it was then when two female rowers were shortlisted, which included - Jyoti Gaderia, who hailed from Dongargaon, Nagpur, and Jammu and Kashmir’s Kritika Khanna. The latter being a find by Dutta, to make the para rower strength four.
Col. Chahal says, “both the female rowers were trained and coached here at ARN.”
In the background, the mention of India’s first-ever internationally competing para rower - Wing Commander Shantanu, of the Indian Air Force is also necessary for he oared at the World Rowing Asia/ Oceania Continental Olympic and Paralympic Qualification Regatta, a prelude qualification for the Tokyo Olympics, but fell short.
With Indian para rowers doing well internationally, which includes adding a second bronze medal won by by Kuldeep/ Narayan K/ Jyoti and Kritika in the PR 3 Coxed Mixed [4+] event at the 2019 Asian Para-Rowing Championship, South Korea that's after RFI decided to field the entry, there remained the void of a National event.
Col. Dutta explains, “now that’s because as per rule in the RFI Constitution a minimum of 5 (five) boats are needed to conduct an event, which we were short of by one despite subsequent inclusions of Sep. Vajith V (8 Madras Regiment) and Sep. Rajesh Pawar (5 Maratha Infantry).”
At the 2019 Senior Nationals, Hyderabad the situation continued. “We could do nothing but wait to get a quorum,” Dutta added.
Post the Hyderabad event the pandemic and protocols were hurdles aplenty. Competitions were suspended, leave aside anything beyond getting back the basics on track. However, during this period the ‘elusive fifth rower’ was added at ARN.
Col. Chahal explains, “Devidas Pais, a civilian hailing from Maharashtra, joined us and began working hard in his training sessions. He is polio affected joined and is training with us. He is a hard worker and hails from Maharashtra.”
At Pune, for the first time, a dream was realised with the para rowers finally competing for the first time in the Single Sculls PR3 category over a 2000m distance.
“We wanted people to see it. This was a long wait no doubt for a para category to be included. Thus, when the 5-boat rule was possible here we are with the RFI Chairman opening entry for a para event at the Nationals,” Col Dutta added.
Having proven their worth internationally, the para rowers, in Pune, completed a journey that longed completion. As said, ‘all’s well that ends well,’ the para rowers, for sure, imprinted themselves competitively on the National front and started a new chapter.
On a positive sign-off the start serves as a reason to inspire more rowers, hopefully, more medals and a bright future... so what if the start began in ‘reverse order’.
  • March 2019 - World Cup, Poznan, Poland, Bronze: Kuldeep Singh/ Narayana Konganpalle, PR-3 Pair - Bronze

  • October 2019 - Asian Para-Rowing Championship, Cheongju, South Korea: Kuldeep Singh/ Narayan Konganpalle/ Jyoti Gaderia/ Kritika Khanna, PR 3 Coxed Mixed [4+]– Bronze 

  • October 2019 - Asian Rowing Training Camp and Championship, South Korea: Wing Commander Shantanu,  5th Position

(Micky Aigner)